Build a MythTV Box without Breaking the Bank

How to turn your old PC from a dust magnet into a state-of-the-art media center.

MythTV is made up of a front end and a back end. The back end does most of the work: it records programs, resolves conflicts and controls access to the database. It always is running in the background. If you have a Hauppauge WinTV-PVR tuner card, recording programs takes very little effort by the processor, just a small percent. The front end is the interface for the back end. You use it to schedule and watch programs, watch and burn DVDs, play music and so on.

Figure 2. The Watch Recordings Screen of the MythTV Front End

When you install MythTV, you automatically are sent to the back-end setup. You can access it at any time by running mythtv-setup from a terminal. The first screen of the General setup menu allows you to set IP addresses for the back end. I recommend starting with one combined back-end/front-end machine, so just leave these as is (both local and Master should be set to or localhost). You can skip the next screen unless you have high-definition cable. You also can skip the remaining screens for now.

Next, you need to set up your capture card. If you have a Hauppauge card, simply select the card type that mentions PVR-x50, and it should recognize the card automatically. Under Video Sources, indicate from where it should download television listings. The main one for open-source uses is Schedules Direct. Visit the Web site to create an account and set up your channel lineup.

Next, under Input connections, associate each tuner card with a listings source. Under Storage Directories, you can indicate where you want to store recordings. The latest version of MythTV allows you to specify multiple directories, which can be useful if you have multiple hard drives (and do not use a logical volume manager).

Figure 3. The Tuner Card Setup Screen

Now you should be ready to start watching and recording TV. There are two options for interfacing with your new MythTV box: using a keyboard and/or mouse (presumably Bluetooth) or using a remote control to navigate the MythTV interface and log in remotely with SSH to perform system administration tasks, such as installing and updating software. I recommend the latter. If you don't have an HDTV, you will find it difficult to read any text or menus on the screen. Setting up the remote is easy to do if you follow one of the many how-tos available on-line. In order to allow remote login to your system via SSH, you need to install the SSH server. In Ubuntu, this is the package called openssh-server. Start it with the following:


Before doing this, make sure you are using a secure password (especially for the mythtv user that is created automatically).

If you have digital cable, as I do, you'll run into some additional complications. In order to change the channel, you need to change the channel on the cable box. You can do this with an IR blaster, which should come with your Hauppauge remote. There is an excellent on-line guide on how to set this up (see Resources). Keep in mind that you need to use the lirc_pvr150 module and not the lirc_i2c module; the reverse is true if you have no blaster. You need to set up the blaster right in front of the IR receiver on the cable box; I just taped mine on. When I upgraded Ubuntu on my MythTV box, the remote and blaster support broke, so you may want to set aside some time for upgrades in case this happens to you too.

Figure 4. My IR Blaster Setup

MythTV isn't only a DVR. Through the plugins, it has the capability to be an all-in-one entertainment system. The plugins I use on a daily basis are MythMusic, MythVideo, MythArchive and MythWeb. The first two allow you to play music and videos in various formats (including DVD). MythArchive lets you burn recordings and videos to DVD, and MythWeb allows you to control your system remotely with an easy-to-use Web interface.

I dumped my music collection onto my MythTV box, and as I have a good set of speakers, I use it as my main stereo system. Watching and backing up DVDs are also a snap using MythVideo. If you have an HDTV, try downloading the HD video of the moon from the Japanese Kaguya spacecraft and watching it in your living room. MythArchive and MythWeb are helpful when you're not at home, because you can burn your favorite programs or movies and take them with you or download them remotely. MythWeb requires a little setup, but it's fairly easy. Make sure you enable authentication before opening it up to the outside world.